Fear. If you don’t understand it, it owns you.
As I was getting deep into the research of fear for The Self Club’s first public talk, I realized something crucial that we almost never consider.
Are you aware of how fast we have evolved socially, culturally and economically in the past 100 years? One hundred years ago, I couldn’t vote. One hundred years ago, nothing of what I do in my day to day existed.
Not only would I have had no say on many things, but I certainly wouldn’t check my phone in the morning. I wouldn’t sit at a café writing an article for my blog.
And I’m not trying to get to the “we take so much for granted and should be thankful” road in this article. It’s more like the “do you understand how much we have evolved and how little we have done to actually train our brains to cope with all this progress” kind of post.
We have very, very old mechanisms on which our brain and body function, and many of them simply don’t work anymore in today’s society. Of course this applies also to mentality and beliefs, but also to our physical functioning.
The good news is that, as the magically conscious beings that we humans are, we have the capacity to become aware and re-program ourselves. They should teach us that the brain is programmable when we are growing up in that class in school that never existed called “How to be human” or “Self-Management” class. Take my word on it, it’s coming. The future is emotionally intelligent. And that is our only way forward.
Consciousness is the superpower most of us haven’t discovered yet. You are only a victim of what you are not conscious of.
If we all knew our brain was programmable, big corporations and all marketing and advertising would lose a lot of power, so not much interest there on their behalf. But we’ll get there slowly, when people like you start to realize the power you possess.
I’ll talk about many things here, not diving too far in. Let’s begin.
So back to fear — Let’s deconstruct fear:
The definition of fear in the dictionary is, “An unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.”
Fear is a wonderful survival mechanism created so we are as efficient as possible in the eyes of danger.
The amygdala (in our brain) detects a threat with information that passes through the senses, and compares it to intrinsic emotional memories to see if it matches any of its registered “threats” that have been programmed into it.
This is completely instantaneous, taking only 12 milliseconds. And it has nothing to do with your conscious thought. It just happens, whether you like it or not, like breathing or blinking. Like when someone pops out from behind the door and scares you. You have no control over the reaction, it just happens.
And when this happens, automatically the physical reaction comes in. We become hyper alert, pupils dilate, breathing accelerate, muscles stiffen, heart rate goes up, blood flow increases, non-vital organs (like intestines) slow down and irrational behavior might take place.
All this, with you having no choice or say, again, independent from thought or consciousness.
We learn fear.
I won’t get into more neurological details. But what I want to get to is that the amygdala needs to have a reference to know what is dangerous. Our fear is conditioned — we learn it.
When the toddler first sticks her finger into the electrical socket, she’s not scared. She’s open and free, simply experimenting. Depending on the intensity and duration of the pain, it will register a big neuroassociation or program that goes “socket = pain”. Our biggest lessons often come from pain.
And what’s even more fascinating, we also learn fear through observation and instruction. So it’s not only about things that have threatened us or personally caused us pain, but also to those around us. If someone around us has been hurt in some way, we might register that as a threat as well.
If my cousin or good friend got in a motorcycle accident, I might create a fear towards motorcycle because my amygdala unconsciously registered it as a threat.
Also, if I grew up hearing my parents or the media tell me something is dangerous, that will be programmed in there as well. Injecting fear is the most widely used form of manipulation throughout all of history; for governments, religions, and even parents with their children. Because fear is so deeply rooted in your unconscious, that you are a slave to whatever you fear.
So everything you grew up listening to, all the messages you received, the television you watched; all that programmed your brain slowly. What messages of fear might there have been? Can you recall what you were taught to fear?
Awareness is the first step.
Freedom is what you do with what has been done to you.
-Jean paul sartre
The Comfort zone
So… as you began to experience the world and learn about it and, your brain started making connections, finding patterns and creating programs and conditioning in your mind, your comfort zone began taking shape.
The comfort zone is the safest space. It is the space where, in your brain, you take the least risk of feeling pain or putting yourself in danger. The space where you are least likely to feel fearful. The area where it feels like you have some kind of control.
Notice the word ‘feel’ is in italics. Because it is not real. But your brain is under the illusion that it has control. And thus, that is the reality you live in.
Control over something external is always an illusion, because anything can change any moment without your consent. The only thing you can really ever control (and not always) is what you think and do. But the point is that the brain believes it, thus it’s true. Your thoughts create your reality.
So this comfort zone, feelsreally nice, safe, and under control.
And if your aspiration is merely to survive in this scary world, then it’s ok, you can stay there. We all need a comfort zone, it’s important. But all growth always happens outside of your comfort zone, even if it’s only a little bit. It is new experiences, knowledge and competencies that expand us.
Is it scary to think you’re not in control? Where is it difficult to give up control?
Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.
What do I do about fear- and its cousins anxiety and stress.
One of the most fascinating confirmations of the 20th century is neuroplasticity; the brains ability to change and adapt. Rewiring it requires effort, but it is not as hard as we imagine. A lot of fears we have in today’s world are no longer about real existing threats. We have taken old mechanisms of survival and are applying them to incoherent situations.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, when the response to fear is disproportionate or lasts much longer than what is normally expected from the situation — where it interferes with an person’s well-being and daily functioning — it is considered an anxiety disorder.
We feel fear and have the ability to create fear response just using our imagination. We’re either obsessed that the future is going to be like the past and we are terrified of that pain, or we imagine crazy scenarios that don’t exist or have never happened. Wait, what? Neither of those things are real in the present. What’s going on?
And the problem is all about focus. No amount of worry nor anxiety can change the past nor the future. When the focus is in the wrong place, we go to all the wrong places.
It’s like snowboarding. I was taught you have to look in the direction you want to go, even if it’s counterintuitive at first (because you want to see where you’re actually going even though it’s not helpful). And eventually your body and board follow the direction of your eyes. It’s like magic.
Well, the same happens with the brain. Your focus creates your direction. Where you focus, shapes your reality. Nothing is ever good or bad, it just depends on how you look at it, or what you’re focusing on.
Where to shift your focus for different kinds of fears:
We could go much deeper in to each one of these, but let’s take a brief look at where the focus is.
Fear of loss:
“Every choice is sacrifice.” When we have to choose something, if we focus too much on what we’re losing or ‘sacrificing’, we’ll never find the courage to take the risk. What if I don’t find a better job? Oh but my current colleagues are so nice. But this apartment is so cozy and warm. Even though I’m miserable with him, what if I don’t find someone better?
But if you focus on what you might GAIN. Then it’s a totally different story. How would it be if it works out? What’s the best case scenario? What experience and lessons will you get if it doesn’t?
Fear of choosing or missing out (FOMO) :
Similarly, in this world of infinite possibilities, the opportunity cost of every choice is so high, we’re often paralyzed. We don’t choose. But if your focus is always on the opportunity cost, or the other options you might have, and how they might be better, then you’ll never have anything. Stop thinking about the ‘possibilities’ and focus on what’s real. What do you want? How does it look like? Where do you find enjoyment and joy?
Fear of failure, rejectionor judgement:
We all what to have some level of success, whatever that means to us. And we all need to belong. We are relational human begins with a need for love. Now… If your focus is disproportionately on what people think, Roger, we have a problem. In this case you need to take a look at a few things:
1. Your definition of failure and your definition of success. What is your metric (how will you measure it)? Seriously, ask yourself the questions.
2. If you’re scared of other’s judgments. How are you scared you will be judged? Do you judge others? Are you judging yourself? What’s the worst that can happen?
3. If you’re scared of rejection, what would happen if you are rejected? Do you feel whole and loved on your own? Do you love yourself, or do you depend on others to feel worthy and enough? Focus on developing your self-confidence and self-love.
My antidotes to fear:
Antidote number 1: Self-acceptance, self-love, self-confidence.
We often confuse “fear” for lack of self-esteem. Which in fact, is just a matter of focus. Change how you see yourself and how you see your fears will change. Not because they will disappear, but because you will find the courage and energy to overcome it.
Antidote numer 2: Optimism and gratitude
Gratitude is the instant focus shifter. We live in the best time possible to be alive in terms of health, life span, the economy, technology and possibilities yet the ones who have the most are often the most unhappy. What? What is going on? Clearly there is a problem because we are focusing on the wrong thing.
What are you thankful for today? What do you feel lucky and privileged about? How would life look if I made choices that made me the happiest? What’s the best thing that could happen today? Or this month?
Antidote number 3: Action.
Get out of your head. And just do it. Overthinking leads nowhere. Ever. So you have to learn to feel the fear and do it anyway. It doesn’t have to feel good or comfortable. You just train yourself to do it anyway, as if you had no choice. And you’ll see, you’ll make it out alive. Kill your excuses with action.
Antidote number 4: Trust.
Trust in yourself. Trust in your intuition. Trust in something bigger than you.
Let go of control. Because if you really think you’re in control or you’re as big as it gets, then you have to take a good look at your ego. There is SO much you will never understand. Make life a little simpler and just let go and have a little faith.
Whatever you do, if you’re paralyzed by fear, snap out of it. You are not your fear. And it is not bigger than you.
Do what it takes to overcome your fears, slowly, one little step at a time. Overcoming one huge fear seems impossible, but if you break it down and take baby steps, you’ll see it was easier than it seemed in your head.
And remember, you don’t have to do it on your own. Reach out. Get a coach. Go to kickboxing classes. Write about it. Talk about it. Hang out with people that will help you out. Join The Self Club.